The South Asia Channel

Decade of fear

Decade of fear

There is no better way to understand Pakistan’s connection to the war in Afghanistan than to travel to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and stand on a spot along the 1,600-mile border, which cuts through the heart of the region’s Pashtun tribal belt. Because it isn’t a border at all. Pakistan may have gained independence from India in 1947, but in the FATA, being Pashtun took precedence over citizenship. The FATA is often referred to as Pakistan’s Wild West, since, despite its name, most control is in the hands of tribal elders, not the federal government. The female literacy rate is about three percent. The fiercely conservative tribesmen live by a strict code of honor — Pashtunwali — that above all else dictates that guests must be provided with warm hospitality and protection. That, combined with the fact that the FATA was the jihadi epicentre in the 1980s, made it the perfect place for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to find refuge.

But getting to the border in 2006 was going to require some serious help. This meant tagging along with experienced journalists, or enlisting the aid of the army. In the end, photographer Pete Power and I were fortunate enough to get both.

"You’re in luck!" army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan told me as we sat in his office in Islamabad. The military was organizing a junket to a remote outpost in Kundi Gar, on the Afghan border, which would give us an excellent view from ten thousand feet-even if it was a view controlled entirely by the Pakistani army. It was going to be hard, Maj. Gen. Sultan said, shaking his head, but he would do his best to secure us a spot. We drank more tea and talked of Canada.

Days later, we were in the company of a handful of journalists, including the BBC’s Barbara Plett and the Guardian‘s Declan Walsh, one of the most respected foreign reporters in the region. Declan had the unassuming and easy-going nature of a foreign correspondent who had talked his way out of more than one precarious situation. Only when he darted around Islamabad in his battleship grey Volkswagen bug he had named Betsy, driving like a true Pakistani, did you see his aggressive side.

With brief stops at staging areas, ostensibly to have a tea-but in fact, we later learned, to repair our helicopter-we eventually arrived at a desolate Shawal Valley post that consisted of little more than well-worn goat paths and stone compounds that looked like they were constructed in the days of Ghengis Khan. The military outnumbered the journalists about five to one.

Maj. Gen. Sultan, an officious and compact officer who had been educated in the United States and had served as the public face of Pakistan’s army since 2003, strode up the hill toward the base while some of the cameramen wheezed under the weight of their equipment at such an altitude. "You’re the first women up here," he said, delighted. In our honor, an English sign that read "Ladies Urinal" had been erected with an arrow that pointed to a hilltop khaki tent. I went inside, to be polite and show that I appreciated the effort, but changed my mind as I was about to drop my pants over the dugout hole and a fierce wind shook the tent. I feared that I would not be remembered as one of the first women to visit the base, but rather the Canadian reporter who mooned the troops.

The purpose of the trip was clear. The army wanted us to visit the tranquil base and report that its troops had the region under control. "This border is sealed," army Brigadier Imtiaz Wyne pronounced dramatically at a makeshift podium erected for the occasion. As if on cue, thunder began to rumble and the sky turned an angry shade of grey. "We stop any movement across the border from rear to front or front to rear," Wyne continued over the noise, adding that since operations were launched in the area, 325 "miscreants" had been killed, while the army had lost 56 of their own troops.

The visit was cut short as the angry weather rolled in. Although our group had arrived in two khaki Mi-171 helicopters, we all crammed into one for the quick descent. We rocked horribly as the helicopter struggled with the weight, slowly rising like an obese man attempting to stand after sitting cross-legged on the floor for too long. Looking out the windows we could see that the troops below were running, fast. It took a few minutes to realize that they clearly thought we were going to crash, and as we clipped a tree before clearing the ridge, Pete and I thought we would too.

In Rawalpindi at the end of the day, we drank more tea and Major General Sultan presented each of us with a small plastic trophy bearing the words "Gold Army Division." Although this type of formality may have been common in Pakistan, it still felt strange to have soldiers clapping for us, especially since I knew our stories would be unlike the glowing tales of military dominance that some of the local press would write.

The problem was that it was almost impossible to verify the army’s claims that they had the upper hand in the area. Foreign journalists were forbidden from going alone, and many local journalists had been killed when they tried. We had been unable to talk to area residents during our escorted visit. We would find out later that in nearby Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, a convoy of paratroopers had been ambushed by Taliban-linked fighters on the outskirts of the city just after we left.

There were other telling and ominous signs. A few months earlier, another attack in Miranshah had shown just how brutal the frontier had become and how ineffective the army had been in protecting its residents. A local gangster named Hakeem Khan had ruthlessly ruled the region for months, but had made a fatal mistake when he killed four members of the local Taliban who refused to pay his required "tax." Vengeance was swift. Truckloads of black-turbaned Talibs arrived and not only was Khan beheaded for the murders, so were his relatives. Their bodies were hung in the centre of town and their houses were burned to the ground. A twenty-eight-minute video recording of the executions spread quickly throughout Pakistan, and a few days after our visit to Waziristan I watched the film at Declan’s house. Men shouted, "Long live the Taliban of Waziristan," as the corpses were dragged behind a truck. Hundreds looked on with a mix of disgust and bemusement. The video ended with the words: "This is not drama. This is reality." The reality was that the Taliban was now firmly entrenched in the region.

Despite their claims otherwise, the Pakistani army was breathing its last gasps during our visit. A few months later, in September, the army pulled out of the area after a negotiated settlement with tribal elders known as the "North Waziristan Accord." The agreement amounted to a ceasefire, on the theory that if the army withdrew, the locals would have no trouble cracking down on foreign militants. Without having to worry about attacks from the Pakistani army-which was ill equipped to fight in the region and all too often killed civilians in the crossfire-the old order could resume and fight cross-border Taliban traffic. President Musharraf celebrated the deal during a trip to Washington, even though within Pakistan the Waziristan Accord was widely regarded as an admission of defeat. After a White House meeting President Bush told reporters: "When the president looks me in the eye and says, the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people, and that there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be al-Qaeda, I believe him."

Gaining a foothold in the FATA region was critical and the Waziristan Accord would ultimately fail. Soon, that wouldn’t be the only region of Pakistan in peril.

Michelle Shephard is the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism’s Grey Zone," from which this piece is excerpted.